Saturday, December 30, 2006

I'm from the government...

...and I'm here to help you

'Tis the season for various media luminaries to go on vacation and turn their spots over to guest hosts and substitutes. During the week after Christmas, I heard Tammy Bruce sitting in for Laura Ingraham on the latter's radio talk show. (Imagine how humiliating it must be to serve as second-string to Laura Ingraham.) Bruce, in case you didn't know, is that oddly pieced-together platypus of a media celebrity who cheerfully describes herself as “an openly gay, pro-choice, gun owning, pro-death penalty, voted-for-President Bush progressive feminist.” She also apparently voted for Ronald Reagan. I presume it's that self-proclaimed “progressive” aspect that permits her to be an “out” lesbian, because otherwise gays who vote for Republicans are expected to remain discreetly closeted (although I did once hear a rumor about there possibly being a lesbian in Dick Cheney's family).

Bruce took the opportunity of her turn in Ingraham's small spotlight to whinge about the FDA's announcement concerning the safety of meat and milk from cloned farm animals. “Oh, I suppose they know so much better than we do because they're from the government,” she hissed.

Well, as a matter of fact, they do. It's not simply a case of being “from the government”; it's because they're from the Food and Drug Administration, which has professional requirements for its personnel. We may be distracted at times by the obvious fact that the top levels of government are packed with many grotesquely incompetent individuals and quite a few scoundrels (think Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Hastert, et al.), but those folks aren't representative of most government employees. The people at the top levels get there by means of election (so it's our fault, I'm afraid—except perhaps for that scandal in 2000) or appointment (making it the fault of those elected to the appointing positions). They just need political connections, so they can get by with having as little knowledge and as few skills as, say, a talk-show host.

It is a different story in the trenches. You can't get a job in the rank and file of the civil service without passing a qualifying test that assesses your skills and abilities. I took a few of these tests myself when I spent several years in the California civil service. Guess what? I actually had to know some operations research to pass the test that put me on the hiring list for Operations Research Specialist I. Damn! (I was right near the top, too.)

I'll bet the people who work for the FDA know a hell of a lot more about food safety than Tammy Bruce. Sure, she probably makes more money than they do, while she sits in front of a microphone and sneers at them from her lofty perch, but I dare say the civil servants take more care in their work than their loud-mouthed critics. The scientists in the FDA work to protect us from unsafe food and drugs. That's their job. Bruce can thumb her nose at them all she wants, but I wonder what would happen to her if she had to make all her own food and drug safety decisions. Maybe Bruce would like a free market approach: Let's not shop at those markets whose customers die from tainted food products. Let's buy drugs on the Internet at random (or maybe according to their pretty colors) and see if they cure us or kill us. Um. You go first.

Unfortunately, the civil servants in the FDA and other federal and state agencies are human beings, and therefore fallible. They certainly catch hell for their mistakes, being alternately damned as interfering bureaucrats and condemned for not catching every single danger. I've worked in their ranks—although mercifully not in a front-line public safety capacity—and I've seen that a large majority of civil servants are highly qualified, do their work well, and shoulder their responsibilities admirably. Most of the problems I've observed in civil service have stemmed from the interference of political appointees who overrule their staff people for ideological reasons. In recent years, examples of this sort have been a staple of the Bush administration.

In the case of meat and milk from clones, it's already clear that the public has deep reservations. Commercial success seems unlikely. No doubt rants from people like Bruce will contribute to that fear and distrust. That, however, is not what the FDA report was about. The FDA says it's safe. It's not the FDA's job to determine whether it's marketable. The commercial sector can work that out for itself.

I am close-minded

Spare me your campaign ads

Mom brandished a sheaf of political fliers at me. Several were from her local representative in the state assembly.

“These make me so mad! I have had it with these!”

“It's an election, Mom. If you don't want them, toss them out.” Somewhere along the line, I seem to have become the calming voice of sweet reason, but Mom was having none of this.

“It's too much! It drives me crazy!”

I see that. Both my parents spend an inordinate amount of time complaining about trivia. I guess that's harmless enough, but it makes for tiresome conversations. Besides, it was weeks after the election. Did my mother save up all those fliers just so she could whine to me about it the next time I visited? Apparently. She does have a sense for the dramatic.

“You live in a marginal district, Mom. The assemblywoman is just doing what it takes to hang on to her seat. And it certainly worked.”

“Not with me, it didn't!”

Yeah, like that was going to happen. Like my parents would vote for a Democratic woman who wasn't to the right of Ann Coulter. I recalled my resolution to be gracious in victory—great big glorious tub-thumping victory.

“She wasn't targeting you, Mom. She was aiming at the persuadable swing vote and it was quite successful. Good for her.” Oops. That last bit almost sounded like gloating.

Not a swinger

Every year I have exactly the same reaction to political advertisements in the mail and on television and radio. They aren't aimed at me. I'm not a swing vote. With exceedingly rare exceptions, I know in advance how I will vote on any particular political race. In my mind are clear positions and preferences that enable me to determine almost immediately whether I favor a given candidate or proposition. Swing voters therefore intrigue me: How does it feel to float around in the indeterminate middle? How does it feel for your election decision to be subject to reports of a candidate's flubbed joke or some momentary gaffe—real or otherwise?

I admit that a snap judgment may not always be my final judgment. For example, there was a proposition on the California ballot last month that dealt with eminent domain. After the Kelo decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that eminent domain could be applied more broadly and more creatively than had previously been the case, several states enacted measures to limit Kelo's impact. The California initiative, however, was a Trojan horse, offering restrictions on eminent domain as a means of sneaking into law a list of right-wing pipe dreams about property rights and compensation for “takings,” the goal of which was to cripple the public sector. At first blush, the initiative looked like a reasonable response to Kelo, but it was easy for me to discover its real import by reading the pros and cons in the election handbook.

Does that mean I'm one of the persuadables after all? Only in a narrow sense. My information did not come from political fliers or ads in the electronic media. I almost wholly discount those. When I need to know more about an issue, I like to go to trusted sources of information, such as groups who have been in tune with my preferences in the past. Today, of course, several of these sources are on-line.

So the more overt aspects of political campaigns wash over me with minimal impact. Huge amounts of money are being spent on things that will hardly affect me at all. I do watch election spots with some interest, though mostly for amusement's sake. Those ads aren't for me. They're not for Mom.

Are they for you?

Friday, December 29, 2006

Crime and punishment

Thrown for a loss

I was a very good boy this year. You can trust me on this because, as I said, I am very good and therefore unlikely to lie to you. I therefore went shopping during the Christmas aftermath for a suitable year-end present for myself. I had decided that it was high time I got myself a laptop computer. Yes, I know, it's shocking, but I've managed to get by using only desktop systems for the past 23 years. It's a wonder I've survived.

By a curious fluke, I found myself at a crime scene when I strolled into the laptop computer section of a local computer store. Someone had managed to pry a laptop loose from its security cradle and make off with it during the night. Sales reps and managers were standing around scratching their heads and trying to pin down the time of the crime. Some were bent over the empty security cradle, looking for clues as to how it had been defeated.

Despite the excitement, they eventually noticed that there were still a few people looking to acquire new computers in the traditional way, whereupon a couple of sales reps peeled themselves away from CSI:PC and one latched on to me. Our discussions proved fruitful, I finding a laptop I liked and he chalking up a sale. During the lulls in the processing of my purchase and the retrieval of my new computer from the stock room, I found myself reminiscing about another bit of late-night thievery.

The crime occurred years ago on the grounds of the family dairy farm. A couple of guys had apparently decided that the best way to obtain some tools would be to raid the workshop of one of the local farms. It wasn't too difficult to get in. They approached the corrugated metal building from the rear, avoiding the homes that sat in front of it. There are corrals behind the workshop, but the fences aren't very high and an unencumbered individual can easily clamber over them.

Unencumbered. Perhaps you detect a flaw in their plan.

The thieves must have been young first-timers, because they gave their caper no forethought whatsoever. Lacking a bag for their swag, they apparently stuffed socket sets, crescent wrenches, screwdrivers, and hammers into their pockets. Perhaps they clutched to their chests the ones that didn't fit. There's much evidence that they tried to carry off quite a lot.

They lost some of their haul immediately, as they climbed out the back window of the shop. They lost a little more climbing the fence into the first corral. The corrals weren't empty, but dairy cattle are mild-mannered creatures, more likely to crowd into a distant corner to avoid intruders than to molest them. However, even mild-mannered cows are accustomed to relieving themselves wherever they happen to be standing at the time. Crossing a cow corral in the dark is not an undertaking for the squeamish or faint of heart.

And one's footing can never be taken for granted.

More tools were later recovered from that first corral, although they were somewhat in need of a brisk rinsing-off before they could returned to the pegboard on the wall of the workshop.

The thieves' line of retreat was easily detected in the morning light. My brother and cousins picked their way along the path, bending down frequently to pick up yet another dropped tool. It was getting clear that the night's work was not going to be very rewarding for our novice brigands, although it was probably extremely educational. My brother told me later that the recoveries tapered off as he followed the trail from corral to corral, until he suddenly came to a major bounty. The thieves had lost most of the remnants of their booty all at once in one particular corral.

The one containing the bull.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

An earlier model of Ford

Before the presidency

Gerald Ford ended his life widely viewed as an affable, inoffensive gentleman. His peculiar political career included more than two years as the country's only unelected president (if you don't count George W. Bush's first term). He succeeded to the highest office in the land by appointment, stepping over the political corpses of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew and President Richard Nixon, who had named him as Agnew's successor (and, ultimately, his own). Ford quickly demonstrated that Richard Nixon had not entirely lost his touch: he promptly issued a presidential pardon to his predecessor, saving Nixon from the likelihood of conviction and imprisonment for criminal activities.

I never quite warmed to Gerald Ford, although it was a relief to have him as chief executive after Nixon's nonstop abuse of presidential authority. I could not forget that Ford had always been a convenient tool in the hands of the GOP power structure. He was the minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives when Nixon tapped him in 1973 to fill the office of vice president after Agnew's resignation and nolo contendere plea on bribery charges. As minority leader during the years of Lyndon Johnson's presidency, Ford had joined with his opposite number in the U.S. Senate, Everett Dirksen, in hectoring LBJ via the “Ev and Jerry” show, a string of press conferences devoted to decrying government spending and intrusive federal policies. (You don't hear Republicans talk about that too much these days.)

When Nixon followed Johnson in the White House, Ford continued his work as a party stalwart by focusing on the new administration's enemies. (Back then, we didn't know that Nixon had compiled an actual “enemies list.”) Nixon had had difficulty placing his own nominees on the Supreme Court, which was frustrating his efforts to make the judiciary more amenable to his goals. The minority leader dutifully led a charge against the senior member of the Supreme Court, Associate Justice William O. Douglas, a liberal jurist whose positions were diametrically opposed to Nixon's agenda. Gerry Ford blasted Douglas as a disgrace to the high court and demanded his impeachment.

The grounds for Ford's demand were fanciful, to say the least. He accused Douglas of being liberal; while true enough, that was not grounds for impeachment (and Rush Limbaugh was not yet around to argue that liberalism is a crime in and of itself). Ford said that Douglas was soft on obscenity because he declined to allow banning or censorship of salacious films (I am Curious (Yellow) was a softcore import from Sweden that was much in the news at that time). The House minority leader added that Douglas had dared to publish an article in Evergreen magazine, a publication that includes photographs of naked women. In one infamous incident, Ford irately waved about a copy of the magazine while television cameras were covering his congressional hearing. In a move that would foreshadow Ford's future reputation for physical clumsiness, he let the magazine flop open, displaying a nude pin-up to the cameras. That footage didn't make it to the evening news broadcasts.

Ford's accusations were weak, but he perfectly expressed the notion of brute-force politics (later exemplified in the GOP congresses of 1995-2007) when he replied to a request for a definition of impeachable offense: “The only honest answer is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.” The move to impeach Douglas fell flat on its face, but it may well be that Nixon felt it was a mission accomplished. The president had put the people on notice that he had the means to strike out at his rivals and opponents. Ford was his willing tool.

Later, as the 38th president of the United States, Gerald Ford experienced the ultimate in irony. William O. Douglas, old and infirm, submitted his resignation from the Supreme Court in 1975. President Ford was thus handed the opportunity to name the replacement for the target of his impeachment attack.

But the ironical nature of the story of Ford versus Douglas does not end with that peculiar development. There's one more curious twist worth our consideration: Ford's choice for Douglas's successor was John Paul Stevens. Today, Justice Stevens is widely viewed as one of the most liberal members of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Perhaps Gerald Ford didn't work out as badly as president as I feared he would.

The mother tongue

A dying language
‘Interpret, is it? As I told you before I do not speak—not as who should say speak—Portuguese. Still less do I understand the language when it is spoke. No man born of woman has ever understood spoken Portuguese, without he is a native or brought up to comprehend that strange blurred muffled indistinct utterance from a very early, almost toothless, age. Anyone with a handful of Latin—even Spanish or Catalan—can read it without much difficulty but to comprehend even the drift of the colloquial, the rapidly muttered version...’

—Dr. Maturin in Blue at the Mizzen, Patrick O'Brian
Major holidays in my family are always an excuse for people to converge on the home in which my parents reside, the house they originally built when they first got married over fifty years ago. Despite the numerous additions, it remains recognizable as the home in which I grew up. Inside, though, there is a notable difference—and I'm not just talking about the often-revised decor.

Everyone speaks the English now. When I was young, it was always Portuguese. I grew up speaking that language first. All four of my grandparents were early twentieth-century immigrants from the Azores and my parents and uncles and aunts all knew Portuguese as the mother tongue. Of course, I spoke it, too.

I picked up English later, as my second language, but I recall no particular difficulty about it. I plunged into kindergarten with no special communications trauma, so my English skills must have been adequate to the task. Perhaps our first television had something to do with that, arriving in our home a year or two before I started school.

My father and his siblings all married children of Portuguese immigrants, so all of my paternal cousins also spoke Portuguese—at least initially. On my mother's side of the family, however, no one except Mom married a Portuguese-speaker. My maternal cousins all grew up monolingual anglophones.

My brother has a Portuguese-speaking wife, so their daughters retain the language in fair measure. My sister and my Anglo brother-in-law, however, have English-only sons. Whereas my brother-in-law used to sit patiently through the incomprehensible Portuguese babble of family gatherings, his time in purgatory is over. English is the rule in family gatherings now. We hear the occasional burst of Portuguese vocabulary (mostly, it seems, when children are being admonished), but the trend is clear. Each generation knows less than its predecessor.

My own Portuguese language skills are rudimentary. It's been more than twenty years since my paternal grandmother died, the last of the Portuguese-only speakers in the family. I used to talk to her every week, even after going off to college. She insisted that I call her collect whenever I wanted, so I made a point of a regular weekend phone call. I haven't used Portuguese regularly since then, although I retain a modicum of fluency because the rudiments are so thoroughly ingrained.

But I said “rudiments,” and that's the right word. Portuguese is highly phonetic, so I can read it after a fashion, but an encounter with Brazil's O Globo or Portugal's Diário de Notícias quickly reminds me how limited my vocabulary is. When I speak English, I present myself as a highly educated person with a large (really large) vocabulary. When I try to express myself in Portuguese, I revert to my untutored childhood, conjugating verbs by ear (because they sound right—or not) and juggling the kiddie lexicon that sufficed for casual conversation with my grandmother. The natural consequence is that I avoid speaking Portuguese outside my family—where it's no longer used much anyway.

I do credit my childhood bilingualism as a major building block in my subsequent literacy and vocabulary. I've since studied (dabbled in, really) other languages, and that early experience of shifting gears in my head between Portuguese and English gave me an edge I gradually grew to appreciate. Still, I wish I could sound like a gentil-homem sofisticado when I open my mouth to speak Portuguese.

That, tal pena, is not to be.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Thinking inside the box

A hands-on math problem

Everyone who's taken elementary calculus has met the box problem: Suppose you have a rectangular piece of material. If you cut squares out of the four corners and fold up the sides, you create a box. What is the size of the squares you should cut out if you want the volume of your box to be a maximum?

If the rectangular piece of material is a square, the answer turns out to be the side of each corner square should be one-sixth of the original square's side. If the rectangle is not a square, it gets more interesting.

Since the problem is easy to model and visualize, it's a classroom favorite. You can present the problem to a class in many different ways: computer models, spreadsheet calculations, or stand-and-deliver symbol manipulation. I have come to prefer a very mundane approach that has sparked lots of student participation. You'll need paper (heavier stock is better), scissors, and tape. Yes, we're going to actually build some boxes by hand.

My first step is to print out a bunch of full-page half-inch grids on card stock. You can use the table feature in Word or WordPerfect or a spreadsheet grid to force horizontal and vertical rules spaced half an inch apart. Since printers can't print to the very edge of a page, the grid won't be quite complete. I turn off the outermost borders on the outermost grid boxes and tweak their size in conjunction with the print margins so that the spacing remains half an inch all the way across. Then I cut each 8½ by 11 sheet in two, creating a pair of rectangles marked off in a square grid, each one 11 by 17 (using half-inch units, of course).

It's very easy to hand out rectangles, scissors, and tape and tell your students to start cutting, folding, and taping up boxes. However, most of them will immediately pick 2 by 2 or 3 by 3 squares, so you end up with big stacks of duplicates. Here's what I do to avoid this problem:

I break the class up into groups of four. Each student has a rectangle and each group has a pair of scissors and a roll of tape. The student to whom I hand the scissors in each group is designated the Recorder and is given a tally sheet on which to enter the results of the group's work. The Recorder gets to make the first box, choosing how big the corner squares should be in his or her box construction. When the Recorder has finished using the scissors, they are handed off to another student in the group, who is not allowed to use the same size cuts as the Recorder. In fact, each student is required to choose cuts of different dimensions, so that the group will produce four distinct boxes.

Here are some of the directions on an instruction sheet that each student has:
When it’s your turn, take your cardboard rectangle, which is 17 units long by 11 units wide, and choose how big a square to cut out of the corners. You cannot choose the same size as anyone else in your group. Don’t actually remove the squares, just make one cut in each corner so that you can fold up the sides and make a rectangular box. Tape the corners.

Write your name on your box, along with the length, width, height, and volume. Make sure the recorder has all of your information.
The pressure to choose different sizes for the square corners produces interesting results. Instead of choosing small integers like 2 or 3, some announce that they will use e or π in addition to more conventional “risky” numbers like 1.75 or 2.5.

The Recorders take their tally sheets to the board and write down the cut sizes, each accompanied by the volume of the resulting box. I plot these on a Cartesian coordinate board at the side of the room. A few minutes are spent tracking down and correcting errant results (usually given away by failing to fall on the curve that is forming on the coordinate board).

The cutting and taping and tallying takes about twenty minutes with a class of thirty. The students soon agree that the 182 cubic units corresponding to a cut of 2 must be the maximum possible volume (after which there's often some grumbling among those who claim they wanted to choose 2 but were prevented from doing so by the rules of the exercise). That sets up phase two of the experiment.

I hand out worksheets on which the groups are to replicate their construction-paper experiments, but this time with x playing the role of the cut. The students collaborate in figuring out that the dimensions of the resulting box would have to be 17 − 2x by 11 − 2x by x, after which they compute and simplify an expression for the volume of the box as a function of x:

V(x) = 4x3 − 56x2 + 187x.

Rather to their surprise, as they work through finding the first derivative and setting it equal to zero to find critical values, the students discover that x = 2 is not the value corresponding to a maximum. It turns out to be x = 2.18. (That's an approximation, of course. The exact result contains a radical.) A volume of almost 183 cubic units is actually possible.

The classroom exercise in box construction appeals to me in several ways: There is an apparent result which turns out to be not quite correct. There is a an opportunity to work together in tracking down the exact answer. There is the chance to learn by personal construction and computation how a function can be developed to represent a quantity to be optimized. It's a lot better than following a teacher's scratch marks on a board in front of a class. On top of all that, the materials are cheap and easy to come by.

By the way, even though I've always conducted this exercise with college students, I have found it prudent to distribute round-ended safety scissors. I'm just saying.


You can find a charming Java applet treatment of the box problem in all of its rectangular generality at Alexander Bogomolny's Interactive Mathematics site.

Word of the Day

New meanings for old words

From the Merriam-Webster dictionary (with enhancements):
Main Entry: loss leader
Function: noun

1 : something (as merchandise) sold at a loss in order to draw customers

2 : George W. Bush, 43rd President (illegitimate) of the United States of America

loss-leader adjective

Friday, December 22, 2006

Creative math

You can cancel anything!

In the white-hot forge of test anxiety, a math student hammered out an eldritch weapon with which to reduce a fearful fraction to its lowest form. Dangling by one hand from the precarious perch of a perilous vinculum, our hero gave a mighty swing and smartly smote the object of his dread with the sharp edge of his wicked blade. A mighty explosion!

When the debris cleared, a pair of h's had vanished, cancelled from both numerator and denominator of the deadly fraction. Unfortunately, our hapless hero was not rewarded with success. The poor student, in an excess of zeal, had cancelled That Which Cannot Be Cancelled.

I have seldom seen its like, although cancellation is often misused by math students eager to reduce anything they can. In this instance, our hero left a dangling exponent in the numerator. He decided that the superscript 2 was inherited by the coefficient 4, which directly became 16. Problem solved!

Oh, dear. At least he distributed the cancellation to the other two terms in the numerator—correctly, too. Perhaps there's hope.

The 98th Carnival of Education

Lots of lessons

If you haven't checked out the 98th Carnival of Education, you can do so over at MedianSib's. Yours truly is represented on the roster by A well-earned F. (Hey, that sounds like I flunked!) MedianSib has done a ton of homework assembling this entry in the continuing series of education carnivals and it will take you hours to work through her generous compilation.

I've noticed that the Carnival of Education frequently has a rather conservative flavor, and this one is no exception. The next installment, for example, will be hosted at Right on the Left Coast, and MediumSib herself lists Michelle Malkin's blog as one of her favorites. (In case you haven't suspected, I'm not big on Malkin.) I suppose my report on a student taking advantage of the system fits right into the rightish ambiance.

MediumSib helpfully sprinkled her Carnival of Education roster with excerpts from some of the offerings. That's a nice feature in a carnival round-up. One that struck me (but not in a particularly good way), was an item by Taz's Mom on homeschooling:
So why is everyone up in arms about homeschool? Was not homeschool the only school for hundreds of years? God didn’t set up a public school in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve didn’t kiss their children goodbye as they boarded the camel bus to go to the nearby public school when they were five years old. What makes people think that children being taught by their mothers and fathers is such a bad thing?
Well, in the first place, I don't know that “everyone” is up in arms about homeschooling or that people in general think it's a bad thing for kids to learn stuff from their parents. Some of my students in college (and one of my colleagues) were homeschooled and they seem to be doing okay.

Second, the argument advanced by Taz's Mom in defense of homeschooling is entirely specious and raises questions about how well Taz's Mom performs as a homeschool teacher—especially in teaching logic. I'm fairly certain that the Garden of Eden (if it ever existed) didn't have laundromats in it either, but that doesn't automatically make them contrary to the will of God or otherwise some kind of bad thing. (I'm sure you can think of other examples.)

Finally, a lot of parents may be limited in how far they can take their children with homeschooling. I'm sure parents vary in their knowledge and skills as much as any other large group of human beings. The obvious bottom line is that there is nothing inherently good or bad about homeschooling. In fact, every child learns from his or her parents—at least to some degree, but the real story about homeschooling is what you do with it. One possible outcome is the trio of little creationists, homeschooled to a fare-thee-well in the narrowest of interpretations of Genesis. That's less of an education than it is an indoctrination.

But go see the 98th Carnival of Education for yourself. MedianSib's impressive work will give her successors a high mark to shoot for.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The liberals are back!

The 28th Carnival of the Liberals

After a period of benign neglect, the Carnival of the Liberals has been resuscitated by Grrlscientist. Billed as the first edition of the carnival's second year, CotL #28 includes Halfway There's recent post You're no Jack Kennedy, but if you're reading this post, you may very well have already seen it. So don't dilly dally around here: Go to Living the Scientific Life, where Grrlscientist has many other bright blue selections for your enjoyment.

Now if you care to speculate as to why this seems a particularly auspicious moment to revive CotL, I'd suggest that November 7 was reason enough. Let's not just hope for the best: Let's work for it, too!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Ten years without Carl Sagan

Celebrating a skeptical life

This day, December 20, 2006, marks the tenth anniversary of Carl Sagan's death. We've been without him for a full decade now, and his absence gravely weakened the ranks of those willing to fight for the cause of science and sanity.

We are fortunate, however, to have so much of Sagan's intelligent advocacy of rational thought in his written and electronic legacy. Therefore, instead of merely commemorating a sad anniversary, it is appropriate that we celebrate his life as one of the great figures in the intellectual life of the twentieth century.

A Carl Sagan memorial blog-a-thon has been sparked by the efforts of Joel Schlosberg at Joel's Humanistic Blog. Go visit Joel's blog for links to the blog-a-thon participants. I've already posted the story of my meeting with Carl Sagan (The Unknown Sagan) and am looking forward to reading the many other tributes that have been posted elsewhere. A wonderful collection of Sagan anecdotes and memorabilia is rapidly growing at the Celebrating Sagan site, which is definitely worth a leisurely visit. Carl's son Nick has a blog of his own, complete with cherished memories of his father; check it out at the eponymous Nick Sagan.

The latest issue (January/February 2007) of the Skeptical Inquirer just came out, featuring Sagan on its cover and containing a lengthy tribute by David Morrison, Sagan's student and colleague. Don't miss it!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Death in Oregon

Can you hear me now?

Kelly James died in a snow cave near the summit of Oregon's Mount Hood. James Kim died of exposure near Grants Pass while hiking for help for his stranded family. While Kim's family was rescued, James's mountain-climbing companions are still missing, every passing day making their successful rescue less likely.

Will they be among the last people to die in this way? I'm afraid not.

Kim worked for Cnet in San Francisco. When the first news stories began to appear about the missing Kim family, it struck me as strange that someone with James Kim's background could vanish without a trace. Aren't we all connected all the time these days? Wasn't Kim wired into the rest of the world?

In fact, he was, and brief signals from his cell phone were important clues in narrowing the search to the area where his wife and children were rescued. Kim himself, though, got further lost while hiking more than 16 miles trying to find help. Not only had Kim originally driven his vehicle more than 21 miles into the mountains on a little-used logging road, he actually doubled back during his hike from the stranded car when he left the road in apparent hope of finding a more direct path. He was not carrying a GPS device to keep him oriented in the right direction. (In an inadvertent display of automatically generated bad taste, Cnet's website responded to a search on “James Kim” with a sponsored commercial plug for a car-tracking system: “Don't Be Stranded.”)

There are still gaps in our technology umbrella. Cell phones do not work everywhere and GPS systems provide information that may mean very little to you. (How would you use latitude and longitude or even directions to find your way out of the mountains if you don't know the local roads and whether they're passable?) Finally, being able to tell people about your plight does not mean that it will be possible to rescue you (as many of the victims of 9/11 discovered). Even as we become more interconnected, there will always be things that can go wrong.

Cheryll Barron's article in the December 17, 2006, edition of the San Francisco Chronicle carried the headline “Machines can't save the world.” I was nodding my head as I read one of Barron's key paragraphs:
I am sure I was not the only person poring over reviews of this Christmas' gadget gift possibilities in the same newspapers in which I read that James Kim was an influential San Francisco technology editor who specialized in small gadgets—and about the breathtaking array of large-scale gadgets deployed to look for him.
No, you weren't the only one, Cheryll. Although we are surrounded by people with cell phones pressed constantly to their ears, our connections are still more fragile than we realize. Although our wired environment may save the lives of more people in the future, you can still fall through the cracks.

James Kim and his family were deep inside a no-service area in southern Oregon.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

What the other hand is doing

Mixed-up creationism

It's easy to go wrong in calculating probability, which is probably why creationists like it so much. With a few easy, simple, and incorrect assumptions, they can crank out huge improbabilities that “prove” evolution is impossible. Even Sir Fred Hoyle, competent enough in maths to know better, cobbled up a silly example about the unlikelihood of a twister assembling an aircraft while passing through a junkyard. Sure, that's not going to happen in the lifetime of the universe, but neither is it a good model for the unguided natural selection process that produces descent with modification. (See, for example, Climbing Mount Improbable for an explanation of incrementalism and fitness by Richard Dawkins.)

Hoyle is propping up an “all at once” straw-man argument when he offers this kind of criticism of the theory of evolution. It's an argument that appeals to doctrinaire creationists who are eager to find something scientific sounding with which to buttress their religiously motivated conclusions. Hoyle was not at home among the Bible-thumping creationists, but he is eagerly embraced by them as a helpful fellow traveler—one of the few genuine men of science who routinely criticized the theory of evolution. Today's anti-evolution activists are quick to follow in his footsteps.

We previously met R. Josiah Magnuson when he was winning an Answers in Genesis essay contest with a paper on the evils of natural selection (and Marxism and democracy and Naziism—they're all practically the same thing) and signing on to a quixotic presidential campaign as its official intelligent design advisor (which probably tells you all you need to know about the candidate in question). Josiah is a bright teenager with superior writing skills who has been thoroughly steeped in a creationist homeschooling environment, and he is ready to take up cudgels to defend the doctrines of his indoctrination. He already writes as well or better than the average Discovery Institute scholar , so his future is practically foreordained—unless he actually begins to think critically about the arguments he's recycling. That would disqualify him from becoming a DI scholar.

Josiah has written a series of “disproofs” of evolution with the unalloyed confidence of a Truth-possessor, but it's not particularly difficult to pick them apart. For example, consider his take on the handedness of certain organic molecules:
Proteins in cells reguire [sic] the use of solely left-handed molecules in their assembly. This means that when the first proteins were formed, they were created out of a solution of 100% left-handed amino acids.

This occurance [sic] is, to put it simply, quite impossible. Even with all our fabulous modern instruments, there is absolutely no way to make a completely pure solution of left-handed amino acids. In the cell today, there is a mechanism to keep right-handed molecules from being used. But what about the beginning? The primordial soup had no mind of its own. Clearly, vast amounts of Design are necessary.
I added the emphasis to the last sentence of that first paragraph. It's a false conclusion, as well as the key point in Josiah's argument.

Why is he wrong? Consider: It's like saying you can't build a model out of Tinker Toys if someone mixed in some Lincoln Logs. In fact, however, only the pieces that fit together can be hooked up. You could use Tinker Toys or Lincoln Logs, but they're basically disjoint sets of building blocks—like those right-handed and left-handed amino acids.

Josiah acknowledges that naturally occurring racemic mixtures of amino acids are no barrier to the flourishing of life today because living cells pick out only the left-handed isomers for assimilation. He assumes that some elaborate mechanism had to be present from the very beginning to allow the most primitive self-replicating organisms to choose between left and right. The reality, however, is much simpler.

It was a coin-flip whether life on earth would be constructed along left-handed or right-handed lines. What we see today indicates that, by merest coincidence, the first successful replicating units were left-handed. We probably wouldn't even call them living things if we were privileged to see them today, but once the crucial device of replication was available, the path was set. At least insofar as handedness was concerned. The succeeding organisms preserved the handedness of their progenitor, absorbing left-handed molecules and ignoring the right-handed ones. It's not so much a judicious selection (by God or a Designer or Whatever) as it is a matter of what fits.

It's survival of the fittest.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The terrible math problem

Terribly easy? or confusing?

The bane of a math teacher's existence is the egregiously incorrect solution that nevertheless produces a correct answer. Students hate it when they don't get full credit for having the “right” answer, although that answer is no more than an extremely lucky happenstance.

A running tally of such “Lucky Larry” solutions is maintained by the American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges. The examples come from all mathematical fields, but algebra is particularly ripe territory for the efforts of Lucky Larry, with bogus cancellation a classic case. Whatever the subject, the key element is coincidence.

Since I disdain multiple-choice exams in my math classes, no one is going to get credit on a problem by means of a Lucky Larry solution. However, I have to read my students' work carefully enough to make certain that I catch any illogical leaps in their steps. I make my task all the more difficult when I set up a perfect Lucky Larry situation, as I did in a recent calculus exam. Although I had carefully worked out the solution key in advance, I missed the trap I had set for myself (and for my students!):
(a) Find the slope of the graph of f(x) = −x2 + 4x − 1 at the point (3, 2).

(b) Find the slope-intercept equation of the tangent line at (3, 2) and sketch it on the given graph.
What could be simpler or more straightforward? The derivative is f′(x) = −2x + 4. If we evaluate the derivative at x = 3, we obtain f′(3) = −2(3) + 4 = −6 + 4 = −2. The slope of the tangent line at (3, 2) is −2.

But wait a minute. A few of my students took the derivative, looked at −2x + 4, observed that the slope is given by the coefficient of the x term, and cheerfully wrote down m = −2. Correct answer. Wrong reason!

Nevertheless, it could have been even worse. In the second part of the problem I asked my students to find the slope-intercept equation of the tangent line through (3, 2). The result is supposed to be y = −2x + 8. When added to the graph, it makes a very nice tangent line indeed, confirming the results of our calculation. No problem.

However, what if I had chosen f(x) = −x2 + 4x − 5 as my quadratic function and (3, −2) as my tangency point? The derivative would be the same as that of the function I actually chose for my exam, f′(x) = −2x + 4, but the equation of its tangent line would be y = −2x + 4 in this case. That's right: The derivative function would equal the tangent's linear function. That's a big fat Lucky Larry just waiting to happen.

I can't resist sharing this one with my colleagues, of course, despite the imprudence of such an action. Once it's embedded in our brain cells, will it be waiting to manifest itself during our next exam-writing session? Or might we accidentally use it as an example during a lecture and then have to spend the rest of the semester “unteaching” our students a wonderfully invalid shortcut?


Friday, December 15, 2006

A well-earned F

Applied mathematics?

The end of the fall semester brought one student's academic quest to a successful conclusion. At least, that's how she sees it. Looking at it from a teacher's perspective, I see it differently.

The student in question came to my attention early in the semester, as I recounted in a previous post. She was remarkably untroubled by the F she had earned on the first chapter test. Her score on that exam was an extraordinary 7%, but she told me that she had no plans to change her approach. True to her word, she stayed the course as firmly as any national leader you might think of, racking up subsequent chapter test scores of 0% (she missed it), 12%, and 4%. My student was impervious to suggestions and oblivious to any notes I wrote on her papers, yet she came to class regularly (although she never seemed to be paying much attention).

Finals week was, at last, the occasion when I got to have another talk with her—only our second conversation, the first having occurred after her first disastrous exam. Her inattention had tripped her up, and she came to our classroom at the wrong time for our final. (Class hours are always thrown into chaos by our final exam schedule.) Since I happened to be there, tending to a different class, she asked me about the final exam for our own class. I told her that it was later in the day, that she should come back if she wanted to take it, but that she was free to skip it, since there was no possibility of her earning a passing grade for the class (her final exam “target score” for a C in the class was over 400%, which seemed a tad unlikely).

I took the opportunity to ask her why she had persisted throughout the semester in spending time on a class she was clearly not going to earn credit for.

“No, you get credit for an F,” she replied. “An F may not look like credit to you, but it does to me. To me, an F means ‘funds.’ It means ‘food’ and ‘finance.’”

So that was it. As someone had previously suggested to me, my student was just doing it to collect her financial aid. Such aid is not particularly generous at our community college, so I marveled that anyone would consider it a reasonable means for cobbling together a subsistence existence. I asked her why she had chosen our particular course in business math.

“It's my counselors. They keep giving me bad advice. They keep getting me into classes that I don't need. I've had lots of math classes. I'm all mathed out. I have other courses.”

“Okay, but it's too bad you didn't take something that you could actually use. Your attendance was good, but it didn't advance your education.”

But our interview was over. I could tell, because she turned on her heel and left.

Later in the morning, she was back for our final exam. She doodled on the pages for a few minutes, turned it in, and left. There's nothing there worth grading. I'm sure her only reason for attending the final was to protect her enrollment status from an instructor-initiated drop. She must not know that the deadline for that was weeks ago. At this point, I have to assign her a grade rather than striking her from my roster.

It will be the most thoroughly earned F of my teaching career.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Unknown Sagan

When you care enough to send the very best

My boss was in one of those exempt positions that exist in the upper reaches of state service. Those of us who labored under her direction were all civil servants. We had quite a bit of job security, while she had essentially none. She served at the pleasure of the elected statewide official who had appointed her. Such people come and go with elections and changes in policies. The lower levels of state government are more stable.

“Laura” had already done a certain amount of skipping about in state service, having put in time on the legislative staff as well as with state agencies other than our own. We had taken her measure after a few months and knew that she was not an asset to the agency, but she was unlikely to be a significant liability unless she began to interfere in our operations. She did eventually begin to mess things up—and got dismissed for it—but that was still in the future when I told her I needed a day off.

“There's a conference in Pasadena that I want to attend. I'm really looking forward to the keynote address on the first day. The speaker is going to be Carl Sagan.”

Laura looked at me blankly. My enthusiasm was high, but she was serenely unaffected. I wondered for a moment whether she was about to object to my plans (surely the agency could spare me for a day or two!), so I was completely unprepared for her words:

“Who is Carl Sagan?” she asked.

My jaw did not drop, but I fear that my eyes did bulge. Who is Carl Sagan? Carl Sagan? I couldn't credit it.

“Sagan is the astronomer who did the series Cosmos on PBS a few years ago. He's been on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson several times. He's the author of Contact, which was a bestseller last year.” (And parodied on Saturday Night Live and [mis]quoted everywhere—including Peanuts—as saying “billions and billions.” How was it possible to be alive yet not know about Carl Sagan?)

Laura shook her head slightly and gave a microscopic shrug. She drew a blank.

The Pasadena Hilton

The conference was great. It had been sponsored by CSICOP (the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) and its title theme was “Controversies in Science and Fringe Science.” Sagan spoke in his usual engaging and enlightening manner, suggesting that skepticism had an important role to play in evaluating the words and policies of our political leaders, as well as judging controversies in science. (Oh, Carl, if you could see how things are today!) James Randi gave a presentation at lunch. Penn & Teller had provided the after-dinner entertainment on the second (and final) evening. A good time was had by all.

I was staying at the Pasadena Hilton, which was within easy walking distance of the convention center where the CSICOP meeting had been held. Ending the conference with the perfect tired but happy cliché, I caught the elevator to head up to my room. The elevator doors opened, and there was Carl Sagan.

He was in his trademark turtleneck and blazer, looking calm and relaxed. Next to him stood a young boy who looked like Carl's clone, complete with matching turtleneck. I assumed it was his son.

I gave a small, nonchalant smile (at least, I think that's what I did) and stood to one side in the elevator car as it rose in its shaft. Although I was pleased that I was not acting goofy and gushy (at least, I didn't think I was acting goofy and gushy), it wasn't like I was going to get many more opportunities to spend time in the company of Carl Sagan. I made up my mind to seize the day. Or the moment, at least.

“Dr. Sagan, it was a pleasure to attend the conference and hear your speech. I came down from Sacramento for it. I told my boss you were going to be the keynote speaker, and you might be amused to learn that she said, ‘Who is Carl Sagan?’”

I don't know if Carl was actually amused, but the boy appeared to be on the point of convulsing with laughter. Carl's expression, in fact, was nearly as blank as Laura's had been. He considered my remark for a long moment, and then gave a small smile. In his roundest oratorical tones, Sagan said, “Please give my best to your boss.”

I have no idea what I said in return. I hope it was something cool like “I will indeed” or “It will be my pleasure,” but I don't remember. The elevator stopped at my floor and I got off. I presume I gave a polite and dignified nod as I stepped off. I'm fairly certain I would have remembered if my exit line had been, “Oh, golly gee, Dr. Sagan, you bet. I will for sure. Gosh. Thanks! Good night.” And somewhere halfway through all that the elevator doors would have closed between us and I'd be babbling at a blank wall. Pretty sure that didn't happen.


On Monday I showed up at work and regaled my coworkers with the highlights of my Pasadena trip (including a visit to my alma mater, where one of the undergraduates on campus had actually addressed me as “sir” when asking if I needed directions). The boss arrived on the scene and I delivered Carl's message:

“Oh, Laura, Carl Sagan sends you his best. He made a particular point of asking me to do that.”

She was puzzled, of course, but took it in stride. She took it in stride until the next day, that is. On Tuesday Laura came in and made a bee-line for me. She was unusually energized and chirpy (remember: this was before her sullen and paranoid period, which came near the bitter end).

“Okay, I guess Carl Sagan really is famous,” she announced. “Last night my daughter and I were wrapping presents for my son's birthday party. I just dropped it into the conversation that one of my agency's staff members had met Carl Sagan at a conference in Pasadena and that Carl had sent me his best.”

I raised my eyebrows quizzically. “So what happened?”

“My daughter went nuts! She said, ‘Carl Sagan! How do you know Carl Sagan? Why is he sending you his best? What's that all about?’”

This went on for a few days, as it rippled through the circle of Laura's and her daughter's acquaintances. Laura was enjoying the attention and all the puzzled questions, although she had never heard of Carl Sagan before. Nevertheless, she knew he was famous. And he had sent her his best.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Intelligently designed politics

The ID wave of the future?

When I was done with the task of chastising the brand spanking new creationists who won the Answers in Genesis essay contest, I figured that was that. Perhaps I will never learn.

Paul Lamicela, the grand prize winner, has created a website where he offers a slightly spiffed up version of his AiG essay, Antimatter and the Big Bang. No, it's not improved. While he was at it, Paul uploaded an essay on the importance of taking the opening lines of Genesis as literally as possible. It's a kiddie version of Ken Ham's argument about foundations: Biblical literalism is bedrock while an allegorical reading is shifting sand. Paul even cribs art from AiG with which to illustrate his unoriginal points. If he continues to hone his writing skills, Paul will be able to join the ranks of the adult creationists who spend all their time using cut-and-paste to recycle their old arguments.

While R. Josiah Magnuson is younger than Paul, the writer of the second runner-up essay has outstripped his rival in his career as a creationist. Josiah is officially the “Intelligent Design advisor” to a presidential candidate. That's president of the United States, not president of Josiah's sophomore class. (Josiah is homeschooled, anyway.)

Who could the presidential candidate be? Surely it must be one of the conservative candidates, so that lets out Clinton, Gore, Obama, or Edwards (even though Edwards was born in Magnuson's home state of South Carolina). Perhaps it's McCain, or Romney, or Cheney, or (giggle) Frist, or (ha!) Allen.

Nope. None of the above. If you clicked on the link, you know it's Gene Chapman! (Someone please cue up Hail to the Chief.) Chapman is so old-fashioned that the major plank in his platform is anti-communism. Yes, that's how traditional he is. He also dislikes “Demopublicans” (and, I assume, “Republicrats”), but is somewhat more kindly disposed toward the Constitution Party, whose nomination he would apparently not spurn.
Your only Non-Communist Third Party Abolitionist Alliance candidate for President of The United States, seeking the Libertarian, Constitution, Southern, Goldwater-Reagan Conservative, Independent, Reform and Boston Tea Party nominations.
I really don't think all of those are political parties, but what the heck. Chapman is a maverick candidate.

He is concerned about the possible impact on his candidacy of another zero-visibility presidential aspirant, George Phillies. He's a candidate for the Libertarian Party's presidential nomination, a prize that Chapman appears to covet for himself. Since the stakes are so small, the attack must be disproportionately large. Chapman has unleashed none other than his Intelligent Design advisor to destroy the candidacy of Phillies—by exposing him as a communist!
R. Josiah Magnuson On The ACLU

A main reason Chapman said that Phillies is seemingly a Communist because, for one, Phillies is a card-carrying member of the ACLU. The ACLU was founded by Communist Roger Baldwin, who stated: “I too take a class position. It is anti-capitlatist [sic] and pro-revolutionary…. When that power of the working class is once achieved, as it has been only in the Soviet Union, I am for maintaining it by any means whatsoever.” When asked for a statement of his beliefs regarding the ACLU in the Harvard 1935 class book, Baldwin proclaimed: “Communism is the goal.” True to its purpose, the ACLU has for years attacked Christian values in these United States, and effected the removal of much of true Conservative principle and American heritage from the minds of the people.
Why, it makes one's heart swell with pride! Little Josiah has learned the quote-mining lessons of creationism and is applying them diligently in the field of politics. You see, Roger Baldwin was the founding director of the ACLU. Roger Baldwin had leftist associations. Therefore, Phillies is a communist! We must acknowledge that this chain of reasoning is just as solid as Josiah's writings on evolution. No doubt about it.

I did mention quote-mining. There are several missing sentences in the Baldwin quote, their place taken by the discreet ellipsis. Here is a fuller quote: “I, too, take a class position. It is anti-capitalist and pro-revolutionary. I believe in non-violent methods of struggle as most effective in the long run for building up successful working class power.” Also, Baldwin was praising the Soviet Union at a time when Hitler had come to power in Germany and before Stalin's great purges occurred. The Soviet Union would end up as our ally in World War II. After the war, however, Baldwin and his cohorts at the ACLU spurned communist associations. The fuller story, however, weakens the case for considering the Libertarian candidate for president a communist, so those details must be omitted.

In addition to opposing communism, Chapman also dislikes taxes. In fact, Chapman pays no taxes because they are unconstitutional (in his eyes), comprising a form of slavery:
In conversations with Greek scholars at the highest theological levels of both Bob Jones University and the Southern Baptist Convention, along with my own studies, I found that there are three primary attributes of slavery in antiquity:

1) Taxation of Property (1st, 3rd and 4th Planks of “The Communist Manifesto”).
2) Taxation of Labor (income tax: flat or graduated/ 2nd Plank).
3) Counting People Like Cattle (to control labor and/ or property).
Ah, yes. The “highest theological levels” at Bob Jones University. Damn, but that's impressive.

At least I understand his concern about counting people like cattle. The U.S. Census Bureau does so at its own peril! While one can readily take a census of cattle by counting their legs and dividing by four, this technique leads to chaos when applied to human beings. We are not animals! (I knew this had to link up with creationism again somehow.)

Chapman also has the credentials to make people flock to his banner:
My most prominent accomplishment to date is that I became a whistleblower in the trucking industry hours-of-service issue at the highest levels of American government in 2001.
I fear that Chapman is one of the very few people in the world who does not look at his website as the moral equivalent of political parody. He's dead serious, but the presidential poll on his main page tells an interesting story about the visitors to his site. When asked whether they will vote for Gene Chapman, John McCain, or Hillary Clinton for president in 2008, visitors to Chapman's site choose Senator Clinton by a fair margin.

I suspect Chapman is not getting the message out to his people. Too bad for him that Josiah isn't of voting age.

Update: It appears that Chapman has folded his tent and stolen away into the night. His candidacy and his website are both defunct, so links in this post to the Chapman campaign website will not work. Go here instead. Josiah's original posts were deleted when Chapman closed down his weblog, but the youngster labors on at The Worldviews Revolution. And, yes, he's still recycling tired old creationist arguments but, after all, they're shiny-new to him.

The anti-absquatulator

The clear light of reason

Our president is under attack. I know, because I've done this myself. My sense of fairness, however, prompts me to rise to Mr. Bush's defense when he is attacked unfairly. There is gross illogic in the criticism of the president by My Alter Ego Speaks for our commander-in-chief's refusal to cut and run. Let me explain.

First, My Alter Ego Speaks quotes Bush's remarks from the president's meeting with Prime Minister Tony Blair. Then he constructs some awkwardly unfair parallels:
“I do know that we have not succeeded as fast as we wanted to succeed,” and went on to say “I thought we would succeed quicker than we did, and I am disappointed by the pace of success.”

Brilliant! Sheer genius! I tip my hat to the master of rhetoric behind these words! By applying this approach to my problems and those of the people in my life, I am able to see the world in a much more positive light. For example:
  • I am disappointed by the pace at which I am winning the powerball lottery.
  • I have not succeeded as fast I had hoped in convincing my wife that twice-daily blowjobs are necessary for our mutual happiness.
  • My nephew who dropped out of high school and is now dealing crystal meth? We are all disappointed by the rate at which he is finishing his doctoral dissertation.
  • My plan to grow wings and antlers is slightly behind schedule.

I will address these points in order:

Powerball Lottery

Bush is never on firmer ground than when he talks about the value of patience in a scenario like a lottery. Even if your chance of winning is only one in a billion, you must eventually win in the long run. For example, if you play one billion times, then your likelihood of winning is

1 − (0.999999999)1,000,000,000 ≈ 0.632121

I'd say a 63.2% chance of winning a huge fortune tells us that staying the course is a good thing. You should have your prize in hand well before the heat death of the universe. Anyway, as wise lottery officials the world over tell us, “You have to play to win!”

Conjugal blowjobs

As someone who is single, I have no special expertise in the art of persuading one's spouse to service one's needs. This is one area where outsourcing might be considered. I understand that such services are readily available in Washington, D.C., where the providers of said services are called contractors. Ask Dick Cheney for references.

Crystal meth

My Alter Ego might be surprised to learn that there are wonderful opportunities in grad school for dissertation research and crystal meth production, especially during those all-nighters before qualifying exams. I can speak authoritatively on this subject because my own nephew, who is a doctoral candidate in chemistry at a big university, tells me that— Um, sorry. I recall that he did ask me not to go into details. Just take my word for me. Or forget that I said anything.

Wings and antlers

This comparison to Bush's words is the most unfair of all. As a man who is close to the earth—a gentleman farmer and rancher who is practically a naturalist—the president is well aware that wings and antlers are not compatible in nature. The jackalope, for example, which sports quite marvelous antlers, has thereby thrown in his lot with ground dwellers, because antlers and flight are not compatible. The president undoubtedly knows this, he being a clear-sighted man who can see both jackalopes on his ranch (probably while clearing the interminable brush) and victory in Iraq (while fighting the endless global war on terrorism).

In conclusion, I'd like to point out the final clincher: We would have no chance—zero, nada, zip—of winning a war in Iraq if President Bush had not ordered his invasion. Thanks to his vision for the future, the chance of victory is nonzero. You have to play to win!

(Thanks to Brad DeLong for citing My Alter Ego Speaks.)

Friday, December 08, 2006

You're no Jack Kennedy


My father can't decide if I am deliberately perverse or merely stupid. Although I carefully refrain from raising contentious politics topics in his presence, Dad cannot stop himself from making provocative oracular pronouncements. When he baits me sufficiently, I snap, whereupon he begins to wonder anew just where he went wrong.

I can tell him, too. My octogenarian father has an advanced case of political Alzheimer's disease, probably contracted from excessive exposure to Rush Limbaugh's pontifications. (He actually takes seriously the pronouncements of that drug-addled gasbag.) It's strange that a man who is otherwise in full possession of his faculties should have tumbled so completely into extremist politics, but Dad has made the full transition from a Kennedy Democrat in the 1960s to a Bush neo-con today. He breathed a sigh of relief when Bush saved the country in 2004 from the specter of a left-wing Kerry presidency. That would have been the end of civilization as we knew it. After all, it said so in his copy of Unfit for Command.

This year the day before Thanksgiving was November 22. People of a certain age cannot shake off the associations that come with that date. Both Dad and I fall into that category, although I was just a grammar school kid when John F. Kennedy was murdered. I dutifully appear at my parents' home for major holidays and I was there the day before Thanksgiving when my father began to reminisce about JFK's brief presidency. He opined that Kennedy would have become “one of the greatest presidents ever” if his life had not been cut short.

Perhaps. I can still recapture in my mind the sense of the possible we felt in those days. We had a young and charismatic president in the White House, the vanquisher of the evil Nixon. (The 1960 presidential election is the first national contest I remember; I got to stay up late till the race was called for Kennedy.) Since reality is not a controlled lab experiment, we can't run it again to see how things would have turned out if the disaster in Dallas had not occurred. We just don't know. But Dad had more to say.

“If Kennedy were alive today, he'd be considered a conservative.”

Oh, geez. I should have known something like this was coming. Dad has become fond of revisionist history in his old age. The icons of the past must be reshaped to fit into his current right-wing framework. Sure, JFK's liberalism was of a tempered sort, but claiming him for conservatism is going a bit too far. But Dad's coup de graçe was about to be unleashed.

“Bush's policies are the same as Kennedy's. They both cut taxes.”

Oh, yes. Today we all remember how Kennedy's tax cuts poured wealth into the pockets of his fellow millionaires, just as Bush's contemporary cuts have enriched the billionaires. Right.

I knew there was something flaky about Dad's comparison between his old hero and his new hero. Too bad I didn't have at my fingertips the simple fact that JFK's tax cut reduced the top marginal rate by an amazing twenty-one points: from 91% down to 70%, while Bush's took the existing top rate of 39.6% down to 35%. I wish I had known that. “So, Dad, do you think George Bush would support setting the top tax rate at the level set by JFK?” My father would probably have sensed a trap and refused to commit himself. He is familiar with his son's wily ways.

Although the size of the JFK cut might initially make Bush look like a piker, the differences can be readily discovered. The Kennedy cut was mitigated by the number of dollars subject to those highest rates that he cut, while the Bush cuts embraced much more (in constant dollars; see below). The biggest problem with the Bush program is its disproportionality. The famous motto of the Kennedy economic program was “A rising tide raises all the boats.” JFK's tax proposals (actually enacted after his death under Lyndon Johnson) did spark a long-lived economic recovery that continued until undermined by the costs of the escalating Vietnam war. (Hey, I just thought of another parallel between the Kennedy and Bush eras! Too bad I forgot to share it with my father.)

Today, however, the economic growth attributed to Bush's string of tax cuts has been notable for its weakness and its asymmetry. The rising tide metaphor doesn't work for George W., because wage earners are left out.

It's always tricky trying to compare economic policies that occurred decades apart, but it's even more difficult to make the case the Bush's are similar to Kennedy's. The ostensible reasons were the same—jump-start the economy—but Bush's cuts were driven by ideology and drafted by plutocrats, who reaped the rewards. William Ahern of the Tax Foundation has compared the Kennedy and Bush tax cuts and made the argument that they are similar in relation to national income:
Tax Cuts and National Income

Contrasting the size of the tax cuts with national income shows that the Kennedy tax cut, representing 1.9 percent of income, was the single largest first-year tax-cut of the post-WW II era. The Reagan tax cuts represented 1.4 percent of income while none of the Bush tax cut even breaks 1 percent of income. The Kennedy tax cuts would only have been surpassed in size by combining all three Bush tax cuts into a single package.
Yes, but there were three Bush tax cuts and any proper comparison requires that they be aggregated. Together they add up to 2.0 percent of income. They do exceed the Kennedy cuts. Of course, a tenth of a percentage point is not a huge difference, but we are talking about 1964 (the year the JFK program was enacted) and 2003 (when Bush's three consecutive cuts were all on the books). In constant 2003 dollars, the impact of the Kennedy cuts was $55 billion. By contrast, Bush's is $186 billion.

One would have expected a bit more bang for those bucks.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

An endangered species

The RINO alert

The American Conservative Union is angry that John Bolton—a great statesman in their rheumy eyes—was denied confirmation by the U.S. Senate in the final days of the unlamented 109th Congress. Bolton's fate was naturally sealed by the Democratic sweep of both houses of congress in the November election, but the ACU has its own idiosyncratic take on the meaning of the rout of the Republicans. The electorate, you see, is champing at the bit for more ... conservatism. Here's how the ACU put it in a recent missive to its e-mail distribution list:
Republicans in the U.S. Senate could have—SHOULD HAVE—confirmed John Bolton! They had the majority in the Senate and a majority of Senators supported John Bolton.

Majority Leader Bill Frist and Senate Republicans could have played hard-ball. They had the power to bring the nomination out of committee and to the Senate floor, where Bolton would have been easily confirmed.

Yet they did NOTHING. They cringed behind their desks, determined to sneak out of Washington this week, tails between their legs!

Last month, the American people went to the polls, turned about two dozen RINOs OUT OF office and DEMANDED conservative government! And unfortunately in the process, the GOP lost its majority and a few good men like Rick Santorum, Jim Talent and George Allen.

But apparently our leaders did not get the message!

Days ago, both parties held leadership elections. The GOP had a chance to infuse some new blood into the leadership—THEY DIDN'T

Apparently our leaders did not get the message!

Our leaders had yet another opportunity to show us they had the right stuff. They could have put RINOs like lame-duck Lincoln Chafee in their place and force a fair up-or-down vote on the Bolton nomination—THEY FAILED TO ACT!

Apparently our leaders did not get the message!

The people supposedly want right-wing government because they kicked out the RINOs, who are now on the verge of extinction. A “RINO”—in case you didn't know—is a term from the conservative lexicon that stands for “Republican In Name Only.” Lincoln Chafee, the recently defeated Republican senator from Rhode Island, might be considered the epitome of a RINO, especially in the eyes of rock-ribbed conservatives who disdain their party's moderates. In their view, a true member of the GOP must be a right-winger.

There are obviously certain small problems with the ACU narrative explaining the meaning of the November election. The Democrats who replaced the defeated Republicans were uniformly less conservative (dare I say it?—more liberal) than their vanquished rivals. Even the ACU has to trim its sails while admitting that the blue wave washed away such reactionary stalwarts as Santorum and Allen. These are strong counterexamples to the thesis that American voters were asking for anything like conservatism.